Information Obesity: The web site

Resources for chapter 5: Literacy and counterknowledge

5.1: Features of the book [page 64]

Below is a picture of the Book of Kells, and also another, more modern, manuscript: both are, in a sense, illuminated manuscripts.

Thumbnail: Kell's book

See also this scan of the pages of four printed books, which in different ways use text, images, page numbering conventions, and annotations to store information and help the reader navigate it. (The scan is 2.7Mb in size.) Incidentally the sources for these are: Robins, K. and Webster, F. (eds) (2002): The Virtual University for the first two pages; then The Hutchinson Dictionary of Ideas; Lupton, E. and Abbott Miller, J. (eds) The Abc's of... the Bauhaus and Design Theory; and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel Watchmen.

The following table suggests ways that different types of book use certain information storage conventions to help navigation. In some cases the conventions are irrelevant.

Book typeAbstract?Page numbers?Chapters?Index?Other points
NovelYes (back cover blurb)Not really important Not always No 
Academic bookYes (back cover blurb & possibly chapter abstracts)Important YesYes, plus a bibliography 
Road atlasNoImportant NoYes: usually a small-scale map at front and gazetteer at backInformation organised in geographical order
EncyclopediaYes (back cover blurb)Less important Yes, but very short (individual entries)Yes, though not always necessaryInformation organised in alphabetical order
Telephone directory (domestic)NoIrrelevant NoThe book itself is an indexInformation organised in alphabetical order

THINK: Try to repeat this exercise for at least one other type of book not already listed here.

The point of this exercise is to highlight the many conventions which have developed over time for the organising and filtering of information through this particular technological format. We have become very familiar with them and use many unconsciously; we would, however, notice their omission as in many cases this would make a book much harder to use (no one would ever sit down and read the gazetteer in an atlas, for instance, but without all those pages at the back the book is far less useful). "Literacy" with a particular medium is often a matter of being aware of these routines for information retrieval, as much as it is fluency with the content itself.

Note also the capability of enhancing and personalising the format through annotations on the page, bookmarks, and so on - some of which can be seen on the scanner images.

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5.2 Multiliteracies [pages 64-68]

In these pages of the book, the following literacies are described briefly:

  • numeracy
  • financial literacy
  • visual literacy
  • scientific literacy

"Computer literacy" and "information literacy" are then described in more detail in chapter 6.

THINK: can you think of others? Why are they necessary, and to whom, in what situation? What skills might combine in these other literacies? What teaching techniques might be useful to develop these literacies in learners?

Also, can you in each case think of a functional and progressive version of the literacy? What might be the form of your chosen literacy when it was imposed on learners and considered a "box to be ticked", say on a CV? What, on the other hand, would be a more progressive and participatory form? (Note the distinction drawn on p. 68 - a functional literacy "ties one tightly into a technology", a progressive literacy allows one to "make sense of the technology".)

As an illustration, consider this example, environmental literacy. This is provided for illustration and is not meant to be a definitive definition of this term. It is based partly on my reading of St Clair's chapter in Hull et al, but also on my own feelings and views.

General definition: Environmental literacy "requires knowledgeable, critical engagement with environmental issues and the ability to form judgments about the likely impact of human activities upon the environment." (St Clair, page 14).

Why it is needed: It is plain enough to see the increasing awareness in both scientific and public discourse regarding humanity's collective impact on the natural environment at both local and global levels. Simultaneously, there is a recognition that for all the risks involved in not changing our behaviour, we also run a risk of falling foul of hasty and/or ill-conceived legislation, which, for example, may compel poor people or organisations to severely limit their existing ways of life, but leave the rich and/or state organisations free to engage in "business as usual". What we need is to move away from a confrontational, "all or nothing" approach on both sides, and towards one where we work with existing environments, to nurture them back to health: and which recognises the diversity of local, cultural contexts and moves away from a law-based approach to environmental protection.

A functional view: Environmental literacy would involve awareness of good environmental practice, defined mainly as adherence to laws, helping councils and companies meet environmental targets, reducing costs. Employers, particularly for certain jobs (e.g. in the public sector) may in future expect that entrants can prove their level of "environmental literacy" with some form of qualification.

An interpretive or personal view: Learners would be encouraged to become environmentally literate in order to enhance their quality of life. Reducing their own waste and increasing the efficiency of homes and lifestyles will produce both financial gain and moral satisfaction. They will also better understand the reasons why environmental legislation exists and how this can be turned into something with positive impacts on their lives, rather than treating these as costs or unnecessary burdens. The aim would be to develop individuals who were flexible and adaptable in the face of environmental change.

A critical or progressive view: Environmental literacy is the foundation of sustainability. Without transformed practice at all levels from the micro- to the macro-, a sustainable society cannot be achieved. Environments are both natural and social, made up of ecosystems and organisms but also the social, political and economic structures which use, transform and produce the resources they contain. Individuals must develop both an awareness of how they and their communities can nurture these environments, and also of how to transform the dehumanised economic and legislative practices which, as they become more removed from specific local environments, thereby turn them more into abstract constructs and thus make it more likely they will be exploited in unsustainable ways. Environmental literacy therefore also must include an awareness of the destructive basis of modern economics, an investigation of how value can and must be assigned to local environments, and increasing awareness of strategies for political activism, legal rights in this regard, and so on.

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5.3 Web 2.0 technologies [pages 68-69]

Links to various examples of Web 2.0 technologies.

THINK: What are your own feelings about Wikipedia? How do you use it? Do you trust it? Would you use it as a source in a piece of academic writing, under what circumstances, and what would the reaction be if you did?

ACTIVITY: Pick a subject you know well, which does not have to be an "academic" subject. For instance, have a look to see if your home town has a Wikipedia page. Make an edit to the relevant Wikipedia page. Do so, as much as possible, with serious intent, adding or updating information that you believe to be significant. Back up your edit with referencing if you can. Then, return to the page two days later. Has the edit "held"? [NOTE: this is a task intended to highlight the processes involved in making genuine changes to a wiki-based resource. There is no intention to provoke vandalism or any other kind of disruption to Wikipedia or any other online repository of information.]

THINK: What of You Tube? Is it an arena for the ongoing vulgarisation of everyday life (and/or the breaching of copyright) or a valuable new conduit of self-expression and creative experimentation?

THINK: Are Facebook, Ning, MySpace and other such social networking sites promoting a sense of virtual (or real) community? Or do they contribute to the creation of microcultures and, thus, actually insulate people in ever-smaller groups?

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5.4 further resources: postmodernism and counterknowledge

"Postmodernism" is such a diverse field that it is difficult to point to only one or two sites of interest. Critics of the movement would have it that this shows its vagueness and unscientific nature, but that is just as much the fault of those who would lump together diverse thinkers and criticise them in a dismissive, blanket fashion, without investigating the differences between them. So I list here just some links to individual authors who I think are important:

  • Bakhtin: Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of language, literature, dialogue and creativity are important and interesting. See this page from the Philosophy Research Base which has several other links.
  • Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition is not an easy read but is an important critique of any attempt to define "truth" in a singular way: regardless of whether you fear that this might lead to counterknowledge (see below), the opposing pole - knowledge systems enforced on unwilling recipients regardless of their "truth" - is no more helpful either for the progress of society. This resource page on Lyotard is a useful starting point for exploration of the man's ideas.

As for the critiques mentioned in the chapter, see:

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Material on this site is © Drew Whitworth , 2009. The image of the Wainwright page is from Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells by A. Wainwright, Book Three: The Central Fells, published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. Copyright © the Estate of A. Wainwright (1958). Reproduced by permission of Frances Lincoln Ltd., 4 Torriano Mews, Torriano Avenue, London NW5 2RZ. The Book of Kells has been taken from SCRAN.